The CIA’s venture financing business believes that expensive genetic modification technologies are worthwhile even while doubters question the likelihood of de-extinction.
The Dallas-based biotechnology business Colossal Biosciences has a vision: “To see the Woolly Mammoth thunder upon the tundra once more,” as a RAPIDLY ADVANCING climate emergency causes the earth to become much hotter. Peter Thiel, Tony Robbins, Paris Hilton, Winklevoss Capital, and, based on the public portfolio its venture capital arm revealed this month, the CIA, are just a few of the notable funders and investors that founders George Church and Ben Lamm have already amassed.
Colossal claims it plans to employ cutting-edge genetic sequencing to bring back two ancient creatures, including the gigantic ice age mammoth and the Tasmanian tiger, a medium-sized marsupial that became extinct less than a century ago. The firm promises on its website that it would “jumpstart nature’s ancestral heartbeat by combining the business of discovery with the science of genetics.”
Its new investor, In-Q-Tel, is listed as a CIA-funded nonprofit venture capital business. The organization appears to support technological firms with the potential to promote national security. Along with its long-standing interest in weapons and intelligence technologies, the CIA unit has recently shown a greater interest in biotechnology, notably DNA sequencing.
Why is there interest in Colossal, a corporation that was established with the goal of “de-exterminating” the woolly mammoth and other species? reads a September 22 blog post from In-Q-Tel. “Strategically, it’s more about capabilities than it is about the mammoths.”
“For mankind to advance, biotechnology and the larger bioeconomy are essential. All branches of our government must create them and be aware of what is conceivable, Colossal co-founder Ben Lamm said in an email to The Intercept. Although Thiel gave Church $100,000 to start the woolly mammoth project that became Colossal, he is not a shareholder like Robbins, Hilton, Winklevoss Capital, and In-Q-Tel, a representative for Lamm said.
CRISPR gene editing, a technique for genetic engineering based on a particular kind of naturally existing DNA sequence, is used by Colossal. Some bacterial cells naturally contain CRISPR sequences, which function as an immunological defense mechanism and enable the cell to recognize and remove viral material that tries to penetrate. Similar functionality is provided by the named gene editing technology, which enables users to remove undesirable genes and design a genetic code that is more suitable.
Robert Klitzman, a bioethicist at Columbia University and a well-known voice of warning about genetic engineering, said of CRISPR: “CRISPR is the use of genetic scissors.” “You are replacing some of the 3-billion-molecule-long strand of DNA by cutting off portions of it. With these editing scissors, you can remove undesirable mutations and insert beneficial ones, but you may also remove too much.
By adopting this technology, the United States will be able to “help set the ethical, as well as the technological, standards” for its use, according to a blog post by In-Q-Tel. This will allow U.S. government agencies to read, write, and edit genetic material and, more importantly, to control global biological phenomena that affect “nation-to-nation competition.”
Requests for response from The Intercept were not answered by In-Q-Tel.
The portfolio of the venture capital firm has grown recently to include Ginkgo Bioworks, a bioengineering startup with a focus on producing bacteria for biofuel and other industrial uses, Claremont BioSolutions, a company that makes DNA sequencing hardware, Biomatrica and T2 Biosystems, two producers of DNA testing components, and Metabiota, an artificial intelligence-powered infectious disease mapping and risk analysis database. In-Q-Tel also invested in Clearista, a skincare company that uses a thin epidermal layer removal procedure to expose a younger-looking face beneath it and allows DNA to be extracted from the skin cells that are scraped off, as The Intercept revealed in 2016.
When President Joe Biden issued an executive order on biotechnology and biomanufacturing earlier this month, the Biden administration gave notice that it prioritized related advancements. In addition to encouraging public-private cooperation, the order includes instructions to strengthen biological risk management, increase the availability of products based on bioenergy, and “engage the international community to enhance biotechnology R&D cooperation in a way that is consistent with United States principles and values.”
The government’s affinity for contentious biotechnology precedes the Biden administration by a considerable margin. In spite of a 1972 international convention banning them, American defense agencies under Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton continued to experiment with biological weapons, according to a 2001 New York Times investigation. When The Guardian reported in 2011 that the CIA had staged a phony Hepatitis B vaccination push in Pakistan in order to track down Osama bin Laden’s relatives through forcible DNA collection, the agency finally made a commitment to stop conducting fraudulent vaccination drives.
The 2020 program known as “CIA Labs,” which is being directed by Gina Haspel, the CIA director under Donald Trump who is notorious for overseeing a torture facility in Thailand, is based on In-Q-Tel. The initiative allowed participating CIA personnel to directly profit from their research and patents while simultaneously fostering a research network to nurture elite talent and technologies for use across U.S. defense organizations.
Board members of In-Q-Tel are permitted to serve on the boards of the businesses that the firm invests in, which raises ethical questions about how the non-profit chooses which businesses to support with public funds. According to a 2016 Wall Street Journal investigation, over half of In-Q-board Tel’s members had ties to the businesses in which it had invested.
Colossal won’t disclose the level of In-Q-ownership Tel’s until the publication of its financial results the following year, but the investment might be advantageous based on reputation alone: According to In-Q-Tel, every dollar it invests in a company brings in an additional $15 from other investors.
The two co-founders of Colossal, Lamm and Church, stand in for the company’s commercial and scientific minds, respectively. Lamm, a self-described “serial technology entrepreneur,” started his first business as a senior in college before shifting to mobile apps and artificial intelligence before assisting in the founding of Colossal.
Church, a Harvard biologist, pioneer of genome-based dating apps, and former Jeffrey Epstein grantee, has previously suggested bringing back extinct animals. Speaking to Der Spiegel in 2013, Church proposed the resurrected Neanderthal, a controversial proposal given the need for human cloning technology.
It’s quite conceivable that we could clone a human, according to Church, who added that we can clone all types of animals. “Why can’t we do that?,” you ask. The interviewer brought up the prohibition on human cloning, and Church said, “And laws may change, by the way.”
Many scientists are dubious about de-promise, extinction’s even when the techniques utilized are lawful. A team of scientists from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand discovered in a 2017 publication for Nature Ecology & Evolution that “[s]pending limited resources on de-extinction might lead to net biodiversity loss.”
When Colossal announced that it would invest $10 million in the University of Melbourne for its Tasmanian tiger project over the summer, Jeremy Austin, a University of Adelaide professor and the director of the Australian Center for Ancient DNA, told the Sydney Morning Herald that “de-extinction is a fairytale science.” People like myself can see very clearly that the de-extinction of the woolly mammoth or thylacine is more about garnering media attention for the experts and less about conducting rigorous research.
“Critics who assert that it is impossible to revive extinct genes in order to produce proxy species are just uninformed and ignorant of the science. The development of technology that we think will be helpful to both human healthcare and conservation has been a goal of ours since day one, according to Lamm, who wrote to The Intercept. The sharing of the technology we produce with the rest of the world will continue.
It will be interesting to see if Colossal can deliver on its claims with In-Q-support. Tel’s Furthermore, it’s unclear exactly what the use of CRISPR may contribute to the intelligence community. However, it’s possible that the CIA concurs with the firm’s noble, though nebulous, objectives: “To advance the economy of biology and health through genetics. to improve the human condition. And to resurrect the planet’s extinct wilds. to allow ourselves and the earth to breathe more easily.